"Sonny's Blues" is told from the first-person perspective of an unnamed narrator who teaches algebra in Harlem. The story begins with the narrator describing how he learned that his younger brother Sonny had been busted in a police raid. The narrator is on his way to work when he reads about it in the newspaper. All day at school, he thinks about this troubling news. He is at once shocked by it and unsurprised, given the company he knows that his brother keeps.
All that day while teaching young men algebra, the narrator recognizes his brother Sonny in them, in the way they derisively laugh at each other and the world. It makes him worried for them. He doesn't know how to help them. As he leaves the school building, he spots a young man from the block where Sonny and he used to live as kids. The man looks so much like Sonny that the narrator almost mistakes him for his brother, but it's not him.
This is the man who is usually strung out on heroin and asks the narrator for change. The narrator doesn't understand why he's in the courtyard of a school building, but the man explains that he came to tell him about Sonny's arrest. They walk to the subway together and speculate on Sonny's fate. At first, the narrator is reluctant to discuss it with this man, but as they walk, he realizes that the man likely has a better grasp of what Sonny is up against than he does. The man suggests that Sonny will spend some time in jail, but eventually be released, and that the cycle of addiction would continue, maybe for the rest of his life.
It takes the narrator a long time to write his brother in jail, but when he finally does, he receives a quick response. Sonny's letter is full of humility and apology. He sends his condolences to the narrator and his wife, Isabel, because their daughter Gracie recently died from polio. Her funeral was actually what the narrator later admits prompted him to write his brother in the first place. After receiving Sonny's letter, the narrator writes to him every chance he gets and promises to be there when he's released.
The narrator makes good on his promise; he retrieves his brother from jail, and they take a cab together back to the narrator's house. On their way back, they ride through the park and up the West Side Highway, and the massive, luxury housing eventually gives way to the familiar streets of Harlem. As they turn down Lennox, the narrator begins describing impressions of their childhood and what their father and mother were like. He recalls the last time he ever saw his mother, before he shipped out with the army, and she made him promise to always be there for Sonny. He assures her that he will.
Before he goes, she tells him the story of his father's brother. Until then, the narrator hadn't even known that his father had a brother. She tells him that they were quite close, and they used to play music together. One night after a gig, they were walking home and his uncle ran across the road to urinate when a truck full of drunk white boys decided it would be funny to scare him by pretending like they were trying to run him over. The narrator's uncle, scared and a bit drunk himself, panicked. In an effort to dodge the car, he ends up running deeper into its path, and he's killed by the truck. The sound of his screams, the guitar crumpling, and the strings snapping under the wheels of the truck haunted the narrator's father for the rest of his life.
The narrator then leaves home, and the next time he's there is when he's furloughed for his mother's funeral. When he sees Sonny, he tries to get him thinking about his future, but the seven-year age gap between them renders them basically strangers. Sonny is far more grown-up than the narrator thinks, and so there's an awkward disconnect between them. Sonny wants to join the military to get out of Harlem, but his brother implores him to at least finish high school. The narrator arranges for Sonny to live at his wife Isabel's family's house while he's finishing his tour of duty. While at Isabel's, Sonny learns to play the piano. He exists in what the narrator describes as a "cloud," almost unreachable to the others. He plays the piano morning and night, and when he's supposed to be at school, he's down in the Village, playing with other musicians.
Eventually, Isabel's family receives a letter about Sonny's poor attendance. Her mother rants about how they've sacrificed so much to make a nice home for him, and he doesn't appreciate it. So, the next few days, the music stops. Later that week, Isabel notices Sonny's records have gone. She realizes that he must've packed up and left. The first sign that he's even alive comes when he sends his brother a postcard from somewhere in Greece. He joined the Navy. When he returns to New York and finishes his service, he and the narrator's relationship remains rocky. They eventually have a blowout fight, where the narrator accuses Sonny of choosing his bohemian friends over his own family, and they don't talk for about a year. This bout of silence precedes Sonny's incarceration.
The story then picks up after Sonny is released from jail. He stays at the narrator's apartment in Harlem with his family. He seems to be doing well. While he's out one day, the narrator is tempted to check his space for drugs, but he can't bring himself to do it. He sees Sonny walking home from the window. He's stopped in front of a revivalist group singing spiritual songs. Sonny returns home and starts talking about the woman singing in the street. He says that it seems wrong that a person must have to feel so much pain to be able to sing like that, so well and emotively. This prompts a discussion between the brothers during which Sonny opens up about the pain he feels every day, and the reason why he used, and may someday use again, heroin. At first, the narrator is furious, but he quickly realizes that Sonny is trying very hard to communicate with him about a difficult subject in his life. Sonny invites the narrator to a gig he has booked for that evening in the Village.
They go down together to the gig, and the narrator quickly realizes that this is Sonny's domain. Everyone seems to know him there and regard him as royalty. The narrator meets Sonny's friends and bandmates. Then they mount the bandstand and begin to play. At first, Sonny seems a bit shaky. It's been a year since he's sat at a piano. But once he gets the hang of it again, it's rhapsodic. The narrator, himself, starts rhapsodizing about the effect of the music, about how each musician is communicating with the others, and about how what they eventually come together to play is Sonny's blues. The set is about Sonny. The narrator transcribes into words a sort of musical "conversation" that takes place on stage, and marvels at how it seems, if only just while they play, to free his brother and take away from the suffering of the world.
It makes sense for there to be a heavy use of motif in "Sonny's Blues," a story at least in part about music and music's therapeutic potential. Motif is primarily a musical term, describing a short, repeated musical phrase that develops a theme in a composition. Motif is a structural element of theme. Two prominent motifs feature in "Sonny's Blues." The first appears on the very first page, when the narrator describes the icy feeling he gets when he reads the news about Sonny. He says, "A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra." He refers to the feeling again as he walks towards the subway with the neighborhood boy as "that ice in my guts again, the dread I’d felt all afternoon; and again I watched the barmaid, moving about the bar, washing glasses, and singing." Later, after he picks up Sonny from jail and they're riding back to his apartment to have dinner with his wife and kids, the narrator refers to the feeling as "that icy dread." This motif serves as a way for the narrator to relate his feelings of dread and foreboding into a larger network of situations that cause unease. For a reader, the motif allows us to map out these moments and better understand when and why the narrator feels the way he feels (Baldwin).
The second prominent motif in "Sonny's Blues" concerns whistling. The narrator notes whistling usually as a shield against darkness. The first instance of it occurs at the school where the narrator teaches algebra. He observes that "one boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds." The way the whistle is described as barely perceptible amidst all the noise represents the chaos and iniquities that the narrator is proposing surrounds these boys throughout their childhoods. The narrator's mother, while telling him the tragic story about his uncle, notes that in the moments before his senseless killing, he "was feeling kind of good, and he was whistling to himself, and he had his guitar slung over his shoulder." And then later, when the narrator describes leaving his brother's Greenwich Village apartment after having a big fight with him, he says, "I started down the steps, whistling to keep from crying, I kept whistling to myself, You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days." The tune he whistles in this moment also gestures to the fact that he knows his brother is headed for trouble, and he knows that the more level-headed life he leads will provide a reliable fallback when his brother is eventually in need.
Sound in general, and the way sound imprints on one's memory and is associated with memory, is a central theme of "Sonny's Blues." When the narrator's mother describes his father's experience the night his brother died, it's not about what he sees, it's about what he hears: "Your father says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it give, and he heard them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain’t stopped till this day." And again, when the narrator describes what haunts his wife most about their two-year-old daughter's affliction and eventual death from polio, it's not anything visual; it's the sound of her scream when she fell after her legs first gave out. He says, "the reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams. Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping against me seems a mortal wound."
But sound, we're shown, also has the capacity to take suffering away. In the final scene, the narrator attends his brother's gig in the Village, and there Sonny and his bandmates play the blues. As Sonny plays, the narrator describes the set as a conversation between the musicians using their instruments to communicate. The narrator sends up a drink for Sonny between sets, and Sonny sets it on top of his piano and starts playing the second set. The drink shakes, and the narrator refers to it as "the very cup of trembling." The cup of trembling is an Old Testament reference to a moment in which God relieves the faithful of their suffering, saying, "Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again" (Isaiah 51:22). Thus, Baldwin elevates music to a spiritual, almost supernatural force capable of momentarily relieving the suffering of those who truly experience it.